Glossary of Important Visa Terms

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Getting your U.S. Visa is an important step for your future.  However, the application process can sometimes be very confusing.  This is true whether you are applying for a permanent or temporary visa, or if you are seeking to petition a loved one.   

One thing that can be helpful is to learn what some of the visa terms and phrases mean.  In order to assist you in obtaining a visa, the following is a list of important visa terms that you might want to know the meaning of:

Adjust Status: Can mean either: 1) to change from non-immigrant visa status to immigrant status; or 2) to change the status of a permanent resident green card holder.

Admission:  Entry in the U.S. under the authorization of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  When you first arrive in the U.S., a valid visa allows you enter at the port of entry.

Alien:  Any foreign national who is not a U.S. citizen.

Applicant:  Any alien who is applying for a nonimmigrant or immigrant-based visa.  In a petition-based visa, the applicant who is being petitioned is referred to as a “beneficiary”.

Arrival-Departure Card:  This is the form that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issues to all foreign visitors upon entering the U.S.  It is also known as Form I-94 and records important information such as the date and place of entry.

Biometrics:  This is the use of biological information to identify an alien.  It can involve digital technology such as fingerprint scanning.  Some visas have an extra fee if biometrics is required. 

Certificate of Citizenship:  A document issued by the DHS which serves as proof that a person is a U.S. citizen (either by birth or derivation).

Certificate of Naturalization:  A document issued by the DHS which provides proof that an immigrant has completed the naturalization process, and is now a U.S. citizen.  This is a different document from a Certificate of Citizenship.

Child:  Usually defined as an unmarried child under the age of 21.  In some instances, unmarried children may accompany their parents

Conditional Residence Visa:  This type of visa allows a spouse of a U.S. citizen to reside in the U.S. after they have been granted lawful permanent resident (LPR) status

Cut-off Date:  This is the date that determines whether a visa applicant may be scheduled for a visa interview in a given month. 

Department of Homeland Security (DHS):  The main government organization responsible for the creation and enforcement of immigration laws and policies.  DHS is made up of three different sub-organizations: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (UBP), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Diversity Visa Program:  Also known as the “Visa Lottery”, this program sets up a lottery allowing up to 55,000 immigrants from selected countries to enter the U.S.

Domicile:  A person’s place of residence.  Some visas have domicile requirements, meaning that the applicant (or sponsor) must live in a certain place for a set period of time.

Exchange Visitor:  A foreign citizen who comes to the U.S. for limited amount of time, usually for purposes of education, employment, or training. 

Fiance:  A person who intends to marry another person.  A fiancé of a U.S. citizen may enter the U.S. with a K-1 fiancé visa, for the purposes of marrying the U.S. citizen. 

Green Card: A wallet-sized document stating that the holder is a lawful permanent resident and can live and work permanently in the U.S.  Sometimes known as a Permanent Resident Card (PRC) or Form I-551. 

Immediate Relative: A spouse, parent, unmarried child under the age of 21, or a widow(er) of a U.S. citizen.  Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens may be petitioned and are usually given a higher priority than other visa categories.      

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS):  This is former branch of the U.S. immigration department.  In 2003 it became a part of the Department of Homeland Security, specifically under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ineligibility: Certain factors may disqualify an applicant from receiving a visa.  Some of these factors include having a criminal record, having a serious medical condition, or using fraud during the visa application process.

Labor Certification:  Employers who are petitioning foreign aliens to work as employers in the U.S. must obtain “labor certification” for the worker.  This is a process that certifies that the employment of foreign workers will not interfere with the opportunities of U.S. citizens.  Certification is granted by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR):  This is a person who has immigrated legally to the U.S. but is not yet an American citizen.  An LPR may work and live in the U.S. permanently, and is granted many rights available for citizens.  Also called a “lawful permanent resident alien (LPRA)”, “legal permanent resident”, “green card holder”, or a “resident alien permit holder”.

Naturalization:  The process through which an immigrant can become a U.S. citizen.  This usually involves a lengthy process involving interviews, extensive documentation, and renunciation (giving up) of the person’s previous nationality.

Non-Immigrant Visa (NIV):  Non-immigrant visas allow the holder to enter the U.S. temporarily and for a specific purpose.  Most non-immigrant visa holders are temporary workers, students, tourists, and diplomats. 

Overstay”:  This occurs when a foreign visitor stays in the U.S. longer than is allowed according to their Arrival-Departure card.  Overstaying a visa is illegal and can result in serious legal consequences, such as being deported.  The person may not be allowed to re-enter the U.S. at a future date.

Port of Entry:  This is the place, usually an airport, where the person first enters the U.S. and is admitted by a customs officer.

Preference-Based Immigration:  This is a system of the number and priority order of persons applying for a U.S. Visa.  For example, in family-based immigration, relatives are placed in categories such as “First Preference”, “Second Preference”, etc.  Closely-related family members are usually given a higher preference than more distant relatives.   

Re-Entry Permit:  Re-entry occurs when a visitor to the U.S. leaves the country temporarily during their visit.  When they return to the U.S., they must have a valid re-entry permit in order to enter the country again.

Refugee:  A person who may apply for immigration to the U.S. due to states of economic or political unrest in their home country.  This is a distinct visa category and has very strict requirements.  The applicant must prove that they have a well-founded fear of physical harm or persecution if they should return to their country of origin. 

Special Immigrant:  A unique immigrant visa category for certain foreign citizens, including: persons who have lost citizenship through marriage; persons who have lost their citizenship through service in the armed forces; certain foreign graduates of medical school; Panama Canal immigrants; and others.

Sponsor:  A person who seeks to petition a family member, worker, or student through the immigration visa petition process.  A sponsor needs to complete various forms and documents on behalf of the immigrant.  The immigrant being sponsored is known as the “sponsored immigrant”. 

Temporary Worker:  Any foreign alien who is coming to the U.S. to work for a defined period of time.  Visa categories for temporary workers include: H, L, O, P, Q, and R visas.  The worker’s employer must usually file for labor certification with the Department of Labor. 

Visa: Foreign visitors to the U.S. must first obtain a visa in order to enter the country.  Visas may either be temporary or permanent in nature.  The applicant will usually need to apply for the visa overseas at a U.S. embassy or consular office in their home country.  If an employer or relative is petitioning them, they would need to communicate closely with their sponsor.  Having a visa does not automatically allow entry into the U.S.- other steps and documents may be necessary.

Visa Waiver Program (VWP):  This program allows certain foreign citizens to enter the U.S. without getting a visa first.  They must be traveling from a country that is a registered participant in the Visa Waiver Program.  The alien may only stay in the U.S. for a maximum of 90 days, and may not extend their visit.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Issues with a Visa Application?

As you can see, applying for a visa requires a basic understanding of words and terms that can sometimes be confusing.  It may be necessary to work with an immigration lawyer if you are unsure at all about any terms involved with your visa application.  Or, if you are trying to petition a loved one for entry in the U.S., a lawyer can also help you with the sponsorship process. 

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Last Modified: 10-03-2011 02:38 PM PDT

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